Legislature unveils 2023 Cortland County budget

The Cortland County Legislature at Thursday's special budget meeting. (Photo via Cortland County).

Cortland County legislators unveiled the proposed 2023 county budget Thursday. The $152 million spending plan includes a .708 percent tax rate increase, which on average is 11 cents higher than last year’s per $1,000 of assessed value.

The budget levies $38.5 million in property taxes, an increase of about 2 percent from last year, and stays within the state’s mandated tax cap.

Despite the slight tax rate increases, county administrator Rob Corpora said spending projected in last year’s budget is roughly $631,000 more than the proposed 2023 budget. 

“If we had no tax rate increase, there would still be a 1.32 percent tax levy increase because of increased tax assessments to all purchases and sales that have happened over the past year,” Corpora said, adding that rising property values have contributed to the increase as well.

Corpora noted factors that pushed the county to slightly raise the property tax rate this year include an 8.6 percent national inflation rate, increasing labor costs, state retirement expenses and health insurance costs going up, and a higher price of fuel, vehicles, and construction materials.

“We are having trouble getting replacements on our vehicle leases,” Corpora said, noting that county departments such as highway and social services are waiting a year or longer to find replacement for the vehicles.

The proposed budget also includes the creation of 17 new full-time positions across county departments, as well as three part-time ones. The county plans to offset at least five full-time roles by deleting existing vacancies. That did not dissuade some legislators from disagreeing with the proposal. The creation of the new positions was the driving factor behind four “no” votes on a successful motion to receive and file the budget proposal.

County Legislature Chair Kevin Fitch (R-LD-8) said including the positions in the budget without prior vetting from legislators was a case of “circumventing committees.” 

“That doesn’t make sense. We need to know as legislators what these positions are and what is the reality,” he said. “These positions are mostly top heavy. They are not helping the people down at the bottom doing the work.”

The proposed positions could bridge a $1.3 million gap between the county’s budget personnel costs and their expected personnel costs. In 2023, the county expects to spend about $25.8 million on full-time personnel, but is budgeting about $29.5 million due to a massive staffing deficit.

“The cost is higher because of wages,” Fitch said. “We are going with 50-to-60 vacancies every single month. If we have these vacancies, we are not going to spend that extra money we budgeted for, yet we still have to budget in case those positions are filled.”

Ann Homer (D-LD-7) reflected on what those vacancies mean for other employees.

“While that gap between expenses and budgeted funds may look fiscally good for us, we need to consider the human toll that having those vacancies is taking on our employees,” she said. “Our staff is exhausted.”

Corpora said being understaffed causes “a lot more stress and burnout.”

“Someone is still doing the work even if the positions aren’t filled,” he said. “Overtime is going to increase because this account is slower. It’s not that we are not trying to hire, it's just people are not knocking down our doors.” 

County Legislator Paul Heider (R-LD-16) said he did not want to spend about $1.3 million on the new positions.

“Looking at what has been going on in the last year, we are in a fiscal downturn right now,” he said. “Four months from now, we don’t know where we are going to end up. I think taking that money from an unappropriated fund balance could leave the county in a very bad position.”

While the county has seen increases in sales tax collections over the past two years, Corpora said he is expecting a regression.

“Last year in one quarter we received over a million of funds that maybe we shouldn’t have gotten because of the state’s distribution formula,” he said. “New York City lost a lot more sales tax during covid than upstate (New York). This year it is kind of a reversal.”

The county expected to receive $33.5 million in sales tax in 2022 and while that is a goal likely to be surpassed by year’s end, sales tax surpluses are slowing down. Corpora said he expects the county to receive about $36.5 million in sales tax in 2023 with very little room for a surplus.

In 2023, the county also expects to have at least four items taking up one-time funds. The county is budgeting $250,000 for a new courthouse elevator, which will receive aid from the state’s court system. Additionally, the county is paying $162,000 for a full body scanner at the jail, $100,000 for a new dock at Dwyer Park, and $200,000 for furniture at the county’s new dispatch center.

A new addition to this year’s budget is the newly approved Little York Lake special taxing district, which was approved by voters in the district earlier this year. The district would tax 127 parcels in the towns of Homer and Preble at a rate of 94 cents per $1,000 in assessed value or about $140.45 per parcel on average. The projected $18,975 in funds would pay for preservation projects at Little York Lake. Despite information on the taxing district being publicly available for more than a year, Fitch said he was “still curious about where the tax rate came from.”

“What I would like to see is that when we do the public hearing for the budget, we separate the taxing district out for public comment,” Fitch said. “The residents need to have their voices heard.”

Fitch added he thinks the ballot resolution was “convoluted” and that it was “not put out there properly.”

The budget will have a public hearing at a date established by the legislature chair later this year. A budget must be approved by Dec. 20.